For much of Reiss Nelson’s time in the Arsenal academy, he was regarded as the club’s most outrageously talented young attacker. As a teenager he played with a level of speed and skill that made him, to his coaches and team-mates, as close as you can be to a sure-thing to make it as a first-team regular.
The development of a footballer is rarely as straightforward as one might hope, however, and over time Nelson has been emphatically surpassed by a younger, even more impressive graduate of Arsenal’s youth ranks: Bukayo Saka.
For a few seasons now, Saka has been the player that many thought Nelson would become. A key member of Mikel Arteta’s side, and a star forward for the English national team. Nelson, meanwhile, has so far not hit the expected heights. He spent last season on loan at Feyenoord, where he scored just two goals in 21 league appearances.
Given all this, it felt almost poetic that it was Nelson who replaced Saka when the England winger limped off with an injury in the first half of this thrashing of a woeful Nottingham Forest. Not only that: Nelson went on to contribute in the same decisive manner that Saka has done so regularly in the past few seasons.
Nelson ended the day with two goals and an assist to his name, playing a major part in three of Arsenal’s five strikes. Arteta’s side are back on top of the Premier League and this was the sort of performance – energetic, inventive, clinical – that they have been craving over the past few weeks.
There is nothing like a 5-0 victory to erase the memories of a difficult defeat, and Thursday’s loss to PSV Eindhoven felt like a long time ago by the final whistle here.
Similarly, Forest’s victory over Liverpool last weekend will now feel as if it was from a different lifetime for Steve Cooper, who appeared aghast at his side’s dreadful defending in the second half. This was a deeply concerning showing, lacking in any discernible ambition or quality. Much more of this and relegation is a certainty.
Forest’s approach was hardly revolutionary. Within a few seconds of kick-off they had set up in their defensive shape, showing no intent to press the ball in Arsenal’s half. Within 50 seconds, they had committed their first foul, with Renan Lodi clattering into the back of Saka.
Sadly for Saka, it was a sign of things to come. The England winger is often targeted by opponents, but those defenders often bounce off him. This time, their hits seemed to take a physical toll on the 21-year-old. He was limping after that first collision, and was then hobbling again a few minutes later. Before long, Lodi had landed his next blow with a lunging challenge.
In between these bumps and bruises, Saka registered his latest assist. His combination with Gabriel Martinelli is always thrilling and they look impossible to stop when they combine like this. Saka’s cross was curled beautifully into Martinelli’s path, and the Brazilian’s header was past Dean Henderson before the Forest goalkeeper could react.
Arsenal continued to push forward after the early opener, but Saka’s afternoon was brought to an end after 27 painful minutes, to the concern of all of an Arsenal and England persuasion.
Worry for arguably Arsenal’s most important player, then, but opportunity for Nelson. The 22-year-old had not featured in the Premier League since August last year, but here he played with all the same daring and skill that Saka so often provides.
Nelson’s first Arsenal goal since November 2020 came just four minutes after the break, with Granit Xhaka slicing through the Forest defence. From there the ball was worked to Gabriel Jesus, who teed up Nelson to score at the second time of asking.
Did Forest know that the game was up? In truth, it looked like it. Nelson scored his second just three minutes later, converting a low cross from Jesus, before the winger rolled a simple pass into Partey on the edge of the box. In the same way he scored against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month, Partey curled his effort with power and accuracy into the top corner.
In the first half, there had been fleeting moments of promise for Forest’s attackers. Jesse Lingard had a clear chance after Gabriel Magalhaes committed a foolish error, and there were a few set pieces that caused alarm for Arsenal.
But now, having conceded three goals in the space of just eight second-half matches, Forest were effectively finished as an attacking force. More pain was to come for them, with Martin Odegaard soon lashing a fine finish into the top corner after he had combined with Jesus on the edge of the area